NABLUS, West Bank (Reuters) - Palestinian police are slowly starting to exert control over some West Bank towns, long the domain of hooded gunmen and their automatic rifles, with the aid of Western-backed funding and training.
The security drive, demanded by many Palestinians and which Israel says is a prerequisite for peace, has seen green-bereted security officers bent on enforcing law and order emerge from the chaos of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
“When I look at the Palestinian police force, I see a force without resources, but I see a force I believe is professional and has very strongly been politically impartial,” said Colin Smith, head of the European Union police mission (EUPOL COPPS) in the Palestinian territories.
The mission is training Palestinian police officers at a centre in the West Bank town of Jericho with donations from the Danish government amounting to 482,660 euros ($700,000).
Smith said he was seeking an additional 1.5 million euros for training and equipment.
Poorly paid, their firepower outclassed by gunmen allied to family clans and factions, and weakened by Israeli raids, many Palestinian police were for years either in the pockets of West Bank gangsters or simply did not bother to turn up for work.
Now they are beginning to win kudos on the streets with better pay, training and weapons provided under a plan by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s government to hunt down criminal gangs and restore law and order.
Police officers who used to be too scared to enter the old city of Nablus -- once a militant stronghold -- made their first foray into its narrow alleyways in years in November.
Some were greeted by residents with flowers and hugs.
“We are now better trained and better equipped, we feel more confident,” said policeman Mahmoud Da‘abes from Nablus.
Fayyad was appointed by President Mahmoud Abbas in June after Hamas Islamists seized the Gaza Strip from Fatah forces loyal to Abbas. Abbas also sacked the Hamas-led unity government, opening the way to U.S.-backed peace talks.
Palestinians have vowed to rein in militants under a 2003 peace “road map.”
Israeli officials say they are skeptical the crackdown against criminal gangs can be sustained and expanded to heavily armed militants, particularly those aligned with Abbas’s secular Fatah faction.
Fayyad’s security plan is being implemented in coordination with Israel and has seen the deployment of armed Palestinian policemen in the West Bank in stages.
Sceptics say progress will be slow, given a history of many Palestinian policemen being in cahoots with the gangsters they are now meant to arrest, and Israeli raids into West Bank towns which Palestinians say undermine their work.
Hundreds of Israeli troops flooded Nablus earlier this month, conducting house-to-house searches and detaining at least six Palestinians. The raids triggered a confrontation with stone-throwing youths in which 29 people were injured.
Palestinian police were also criticized for a heavy-handed response in November at West Bank protests by Islamists opposed to peace moves with Israel. One protester was killed.
“I think the pressure has been very strong on the police force recently to take action -- and they did so, but without having proper training and the proper equipment,” Smith said.
Israel is also wary of giving Palestinian police too much firepower for fear they could turn against the Jewish state if peace talks collapse.
But senior Palestinian security officials say they are starting to see some success as they overhaul the 7,000-strong force in the West Bank.
Akram Rajoub, head of the Preventive Security Forces in Nablus, said Fatah-dominated police won local respect when they began arresting gangsters aligned with their own faction rather than focusing only on their Hamas rivals.
“People started talking about our success in ending lawlessness only when the security forces and policemen began arresting gangsters behind the chaos, and most of those belong to Fatah,” he said.
Israel reoccupied West Bank cities -- seven of which had been under Palestinian control after the 1993 Oslo peace accords -- after the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising against occupation in 2000.
Some Palestinian policemen say relaunched peace talks with Israel have given them fresh hope and focus. Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert aim to broker a deal on Palestinian statehood by the end of 2008.
“Now our president is holding peace talks with Israel ... There’s a new political reality. Now we have the capabilities to fight criminals,” said policeman Youssef Awad, 38, from the West Bank city of Jenin.
Rajoub said Fatah-dominated security forces were raising their game for fear of losing the West Bank to rival Hamas, after the Islamist group routed Fatah forces in Gaza.
“It triggered a coup in the minds of every security officer and we were convinced that we had to take control of the security situation,” he said.
Editing by Janet Lawrence